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September 2007

The Brown Death: Pine Beetles vs. Forests

Pine beetles are felling more trees than wildfires and the timber industry combined.

[5] Nonnative plants invade
This increase in fire damage clears the way for invasive flora such as cheatgrass to enter areas like the Front Range and Great Basin. "Cheatgrass intensifies fires, because there used to be patches of nonvegetated areas on the plains that didn’t burn," McKenzie says. "Now that the grass is there, the fire can spread more." Impact: the largest fire in Colorado history, the 2002 Hayman Fire, which burned 137,760 acres and cost $39 million in damages and manpower.

[6] Gases increase
Forests act as a carbon sink, extracting CO2 from the atmosphere during photosynthesis. Western forests alone account for 20 to 40 percent of carbon sequestration in the United States. But the combustion of trees and vegetation by fire releases enormous amounts of carbon dioxide–more than 3.8 billion tons last year (or nearly four times the 1980 level, according to one estimate). "Any time you release CO2, you’re accelerating the cycle of global warming and forest fires," says McKenzie.

Since the 1970s, the average duration of wildfires has increased from 7.5 days to 37.1 days. Average summer temperatures in the western United States are expected to increase up to 9°F by 2069. The last two decades have been the warmest years in the West since recordkeeping began in 1895.

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